The skewed pride of the IDF

Tom Burgis
31 July 2006

Poring over the numbers of servicemen, servicewomen and reservists that comprise the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) – which can now count victory in July's Bad Democracy Award among its recent triumphs – openDemocracy's phalanx of Bad Democracy researchers was struck dumb.

The astonishing truth, it seemed, was that the total size of the Israeli military is roughly equal to that of the United States' entire standing army.

Click here to view this month's list of Bad Democrats, and cast your vote today

Agog, we turned to a wiser head to check our sums, presuming that a minute Mediterranean state would have to be insane to retain a 500,000-strong army, navy and air force.

The arithmetic, it transpired, was unerring. The IDF is indeed gargantuan. "This," the wiser head explained, "is because everyone is in it."

Every young man is conscripted for three years, every young woman for two. And what really bumps up the forces' capability – aside, naturally, from its 200 or so nukes – is the 408,000 reservists.

These reserves, made up of every Israeli man younger than 45 and a fair few ageing volunteers, generally lie dormant – working, gardening, coupling, travelling, shooting the breeze and generally doing things other than organised violence.

Dormant, that is, until July 20, when the first of 15,000 of them got the call to deploy to Gaza, freeing up the battle-hardened regulars for a more pressing task: the ground invasion of Lebanon.

Others will write of the bombardment of Beirut. Indeed, the IDF had been nominated for the Bad Democracy gong well before Hizbollah's Islamists snuck over the border and bagged a brace of squaddies, egging on the Jewish state to pour forth its vengeful wrath and smite the innocents of Tyre and Hreik Haret.

Don't miss the background to our prestigious Bad Democracy awards:



Winner of the first award: Silvio Berlusconi

Winner of the second award: John Howard

Winner of the third award: George W Bush

Winner of the fourth award: Meles Zenawi

Winner of the fifth award: Abu Laban

Winner of the sixth award: Alexander Lukashenko

Winner of the seventh award: Lee Hsien Loong

Winner of the eighth award: Kim Jong Il

Is this what happens when a country's military and civil society start to blur, like one of those disturbing novelty holograms which, viewed straight on, meld the face of Queen Elizabeth II with the wizened visage of Prince Philip?

Scorn is being heaped on the Israeli command, which on 25 July flattened a United Nations observers' post, killing four (despite ten distress calls), has slaughtered civilians in Qana and had its young braves routed in Bint Jbail.

A people's army

But, argues Uri Dromi, director of international outreach at the Israeli Democracy Institute, it is the very fact of common military experience in the Jewish state that preserves its democracy and reins in the worst excesses of the IDF.

"The IDF is a people's army", says Dromi, who served in the air force for twenty-five years and who is now, at 59, a colonel in the reserves and an adroit commentator.

"I have spent all my life in the military … [Israel] has the potential to be a militarised society, but it can work the other way. It's not run by a junta of generals."

There is, he remarks, an old Israeli joke, recounting the two reasons why Israel's democratic government could never be subject to a coup.

The first is that the rendezvous would be set for 6am, and no one would turn up on time.

The other is that, given that every Israeli does national service, any of them sounded out by an aspirant dictator keen to stage a coup would recall the hopeful's foibles from their days of service and pull the plug.

By maintaining the culture of conscription and lifelong military service, he suggests, "you civilianise the military as much as you militarise the society".

As the ordnance showers down on Lebanon – an assault Dromi defends as being "a question of survival" – he nonetheless rues a missed opportunity to further the work he has done over the five years of the institute's "army and society" programme of meetings with the IDF's top brass.

To hoots of derision from the military establishment, when Ehud Olmert was elected prime minister in March 2006 after Ariel Sharon's demise, he appointed as his defence secretary – a post normally reserved for ex-generals dripping with decorations – Amir Peretz, the leader of the Labour Party and a veteran of Peace Now.

Death on demand

In the world's most militarised state, which devotes 10% of its budget to military spending, Peretz was prepared to argue that unemployment posed as big a threat as the Katyusha rockets fired from Hizbollah's positions in south Lebanon and the Qassams fashioned in Gaza by Hamas.

But Hizbollah's sheer audacity has left the once pacifist Peretz scrambling to do his best impression of Curtis LeMay.

He has signed off on the levelling of power stations and the dismantling of bridges, all the while straight-facedly proclaiming that "the moral code of the Israeli nation does not allow us to harm civilians".

Undoubtedly, Israeli life is threatened. But there are also staggering outbursts of doublethink, notably from Gideon Meir, an Israeli foreign-ministry official, who calmly explained that "it is Israel which is under threat, not Lebanon".

And beneath the exchange of unconscionable soundbites, one of the founding tenets of the IDF is unheard, the one which commands that "IDF servicemen and women will act in a judicious and safe manner in all they do, out of recognition of the supreme value of human life".

We are indeed in a disastrous pickle when that value is subject to an exchange rate across the borders of the middle east.

As is the way with war, what scraps of benefit are to be had are often scavenged by the least worthy. So it is that Bashar al-Assad, Syria's slicked-back strongman and a Hizbollah backer, has discovered a diplomatic ace up his sleeve.

Unfazed by the poker faces of international relations, we have named Assad at the top of this month's lists of nominees for the most shameful award in global politics.

Joining him are a pair of presidents elect – one Mexican, one Congolese – whose accessions to power look fishy at best, and an African despot whose stance on beauty contests tells us a good deal about his style of governance.

Completing the parade of those who have affronted democracy over the past four weeks are two almost omnipotent entities: a body in which seems to dwell otherworldly power, and the pope.

How can Americans fight dark money and disinformation?

Violence, corruption and cynicism threaten America's flagging democracy. Joe Biden has promised to revive it – but can his new administration stem the flow of online disinformation and shady political financing that has eroded the trust of many US voters?

Hear from leading global experts and commentators on what the new president and Congress must do to stem the flood of dark money and misinformation that is warping politics around the world.

Join us on Thursday 21 January, 5pm UK time/12pm EST.

Hear from:

Emily Bell Leonard Tow Professor of Journalism and director, Tow Center for Digital Journalism, Columbia Journalism School

Anoa Changa Journalist focusing on electoral justice, social movements and culture

Peter Geoghegan openDemocracy investigations editor and author of 'Democracy for Sale: Dark Money and Dirty Politics'

Josh Rudolph Fellow for Malign Finance at the Alliance for Securing Democracy

Chair: Mary Fitzgerald Editor-in-chief, openDemocracy 

Further speakers to be announced

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